Yevgeny Sudbin, LIMF Piano Recital – The Museum, June 23rd 2018

The Summer Piano Recital put on by the Leicester International Muisc Festival was this year a real Spectacular. It was given by the Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, who has been domiciled in the UK for a number of years and who has built a formidable career since then. From this his first appearance in the city, one could see precisely why this has been the case.

To be honest, I had not been looking forward to the recital with quite the anticipation of previous years. I knew just one and a half of the works being played (Saint Saens Dance Macabre was naturally in a transcription) and had not heard the artist in performance or recording. Also in recent years I have tended to be rather sceptical about the latest Russian virtuoso to emerge to be  praised by the musical press for hammering the keyboard into submission with eye popping displays of musical fireworks. In the end, if that is all, my faculties tend to dull and eventually shut down.

Well , that most certainly did not occur in this recital. True there was plenty of amazing piano playing on display. Indeed it kept on coming. For instance, the second half of the recital began with a Nocturne by Scriabin written solely for the left hand in which if you shut your eyes such was the skill of composer and instrumentalist one would have sworn that it was written for both hands. The transcription of Dance Macabre completely erased any possibility of odious comparisons with the colours of the orchestral version so overwhelming was the impetus of the playing. However, the point to be made is that even in these works never did one feel that the pianist was tearing a passion to tatters. The sound in the former never hardened and the occasional lightness of wit in the latter was fully there in the performance.  In summary, then,  even in the most overtly virtuosic music artistry was felt to be at the centre of the performance.

In the first half, In Haydn’s Sonata No. 47 and in Beethoven’s Bagatelles op.126 this had been already was made absolutely clear. I had never heard either work . In regard to the Haydn this was not perhaps so surprising since, despite a number of front rank pianists espousing  the composer’s works for piano in recordings, they are still rarities in performance. On the evidence of this performance of this work they most certainly should not be. When played with the propulsive energy  that featured here, the work emerged as  music  that dramatically strained classical conventions. Indeed occasionally one felt one might have been listening to Beethoven. All this was helped by the wonderful classical clarity of the performance, the superb crispness of articulation coupled with occasional  delightful Haydnesque lightness of touch and wit.

This was carried over to the Beethoven. It was one of those moments in the concert hall where the performance was such that you wondered how was it possible that you had never heard this music before. Perhaps it is the title itself which suggests scraps from the master’s table.  However, as played here it was obvious that this was music that could not have been further from such a description. What particularly caught the attention was the breathtaking beauty of passages in No’s 4 and 5 where the pianist at times conjured a wonderfully liquid sound of velvet. In the more familiar territory of Chopin’s Ballade No.4 there was once again evidence of a startlingly  original musical mind shaping the music. I have heard more obviously poetic interpretations of this work but none which have shaped the drama of the piece more convincingly.

The same might no doubt be said of the performance of Scriabin’s 5th Sonata. However, I am afraid I must admit that I struggle to respond to this composer’s output at its most ambitious. As a literary person I decline to respond to what I discovered from a recording I own had prefaced  this sonata:                                                     I call  you to life, mysterious forces!

Drowned in the obscure depths

Of the creative spirit, timid

Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity.

How does one take such stuff seriously? Interestingly I found in the Gramophone archive of some years ago  this pianist remarking  when in an article discussing his famous recording of the Scriabin sonatas that he felt at times a trifle unnerved when  immersing himself in the composer’s fevered  world for any length of time. Normally, I admire the ambition of those who would  push back the frontiers, such as Scriabin’s contemporaries Debussy, Mahler and Stravinsky, all of whom  created an utterly distinctive and coherent sound world of their own. However,  I am afraid in Scriabin’s case I fail generally to respond to what sounds to me to be music of earth shattering  intentions which result all too often in  unmemorable  repetition and grandiose gesture. Alas, not even this fine artist, with all his pianistic powers, could on the night really persuade me otherwise.

Never mind , the recital was one to remember. It was summed up at the end with the pianist giving the piano a pat as a partner in what had been overall a fascinating journey of discovery.

 

 

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Now we sign off until September, when comes what looks to me a truly exciting Leicester International Music Festival  of music written in The New World and featuring composers such as Dvorak,  Rachmaninov and Thea Musgrave. The latter,  who, after having gone to live in the USA in 1972, and who visited the Festival as composer in residence early in this century, is now 90. However, I am told that she hopes to travel to Leicester to hear some of her music performed. My memories of her music are that she is a major composer with a very individual personality, who also when she was here immersed herself in the Festival.

The Festival is from Sept 20th -22nd and is packed full with wonderful music played by front rank artists from around the globe. Details and also ways of booking are to be found on the Festival website. This is truly not an occasion to miss.

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English Touring Opera, Curve- May 29th and 30th 2018

As an avid opera goer in London and elsewhere, I learnt some time ago also to look forward to the annual visit of the English Touring Opera to Leicester. Initially inclined to be sceptical about the standards possible in a touring company with a schedule that has them in Perth one week and in Exeter the next, I have often been left amazed about what can be achieved even in Grand Opera with minimal all purpose sets , a reduced orchestra and singers often at the beginning of a career. Any condescension could not have been more misplaced. What Leicester has seen every year since ETO started visiting Curve is at least in one of the offerings top grade performance standards of singing and production,  in works both from central and peripheral repertory. This is an opera company which needs no allowances to be made.

This year that was true without equivocation. Indeed, both evenings saw memorable things happening on stage. To be truthful, I approached the performance of The Marriage of Figaro with some trepidation since only last month I had heard a performance at ENO certain to stick in the memory as one of the best I had encountered anywhere. Amongst many things an extraordinary moving set that brilliantly brought to life the backstairs of a great house/palace and Lucy Crowe’s quite wonderful debut in the role of the Countess with singing of breathtakingly rich beauty made it a very special evening. I thought in particular that the singer taking that role with ETO would struggle to erase such fresh memories.

Well, the opening aria of Act 2 is known as just about the most testing opening for a singer that exists in opera and in truth Nadine Benjamin , whilst singing well, did not perhaps quite penetrate to the character’s sadness. However, as the evening progressed it became clear that this was a voice and a stage presence to be reckoned with. For example, she rose finely to the challenge of the great aria of Act 3 with its huge range of changing emotions.

With regard the set, though obviously constricted and static, it was used by the producer to considerable effect. Indeed, the movement within such a small space and the use of well placed doors had the effect of consistently concentrating the attention on what mattered. There was a real sense of detailed ensemble. For instance, the staging of the ending of Act 2 in its rightness and simplicity resulted for this viewer at least in an awareness of the wonder of this half hour or so of a musical genius at full tilt. Rarely have I felt the sense of a divine musical juggler relishing the task of keeping an ever increasing number of balls in the air. The stage picture and of course the singing and orchestral ensemble did the job to perfection.

As to the singing , the opera was strongly cast. Dawid Kimburg as the Count and Ross Ramgobin as Figaro both made strong impressions. The latter’s fine baritone was noted last year in Patience but the former was new to me. They both sang with rich tone and often with a fine line. Something in the programme suggested that it had been a production aim to play down the danger that can be found in the score. In voice this was really almost a good humoured aristocrat and a servant with few if any revolutionary intentions. There wasn’t much danger and edge to be sensed in either voice or assumption. To put the Count in a Restoration wig suggested more a moderately lecherous fop than a serial philanderer. Still it was all of a piece. You really did believe in the Countess’ forgiveness and a future for the marriage. ENO had her at the end leaving the stage with a suitcase. She did forgive her husband but had no desire to live with him any longer!

Elsewhere, Katherine Aitken was a delightful Cherubino, inhabiting the trouser role’s comic possibilities with relish but also conveying the agony of adolescence. All the minor roles were inhabited by singers who got beyond caricature to the feeling so omnipresent in this score. It is the first time that I have seen Antonio almost stop the show so wonderfully did Devin Harrison communicate the gardener’s outrage at people jumping out of windows onto his prized plants. However, for me the star of the cast was Rachel Redmond as Susannah. I have heard many sopranos like her in this role, with a sweet beguiling voice but few with the range of colour and line that seemed able to change dramatically the feeling of a scene in an instance. This singer could make Susanna a lovely cat that purred one moment, only for in the next instance the claws to be out. Couple this with the ability both in lively movement and expression to capture instantly the moment and an audience could see exactly why Figaro was head over heels in love with her. It was she who was the match for the Count. Finally, supporting all this was much fleet footed orchestral playing under conductor Christopher Stark, perhaps just occasionally a little too fleet . However, better that than things dragging and it was a pity that the conductor seemed to get lost in the depths of Curve and didn’t make it onto the stage. He deserved the plaudits for having presided musically over a fine ensemble achievement.

The next evening devoted to Puccini was equally satisfying. Il Tabarro is a big ask in a smallish theatre and with a reduced orchestra. However, it came over as the authentic thing with an amazing power of sound issuing from the orchestra under Michael Rosewell.  It is a powerful opera worthy of more recognition than it has had. Perhaps that is in part because it is a grim tale of a grim world. However, this world is painted in sometimes evocative and rich musical colours which once again point to what a master orchestrator Puccini was. Each of his operas has its unique sound world which is yet still immediately recognisable as his and his alone and the opera may be grim but it is full of heartstopping moments as this tale of poverty and people who are trapped in hopelessness unfolds.

Perhaps, one of the difficulties of staging it is that the world to which the characters of the opera do not belong is nevertheless an important element in the music. It is the Paris of the good life and in this production that this was completely another world was powerfully conveyed by a blank high iron barrier filling the back of the stage, beyond which was Paris. Hence, there was little actual glimpse of this other world beyond people and lovers passing high up in the set. In productions on a bigger stage some more tangible  sense of La Belle Paris can be achieved to  give a visual counterpart to the beauty of the sounds on occasions issuing from the orchestral pit. This tangible presence  of another world so close and yet so far can provide a instant and further turn of the dramatic screw .

However, that screw was often turned here to effect. The lovers played by Sarah Jane Lewis and Charne Rochford made a powerful duo. The latter sang his heart out ,his tenor oozing desperation. Indeed, on occasions one wondered whether he was not pushing the voice rather too hard. The former, however, rode the orchestra at times to superb effect and powerfully conveyed her desperate unhappiness throughout. Clarissa Meek gave her first brilliant cameo of the evening as Frugola the ragpicker who so encapsulates the reality of poverty as against the dream of a better life away from the drudgery and the fear for the future with an ill husband who can barely do the job of a stevedore. Over all this hovers the gruff presence of Michele, the rightly suspicious husband and father, mourning for his lost child and what he feels is the lost love of his wife. Craig Smith made both the sadness and the latent violence of the man palpable as he stalked around his barge and when the lighting of his pipe in the darkness ironically reveals his wife’s lover his eruption was felt to be truly shocking. Was it my imagination or was his voice in significantly better shape than last year in Tosca? Whatever, I found it a riveting performance.

And then Gianni Schicchi burst upon us with unforgettable and outrageous comic force. This was a triumph, reflecting the power a fine ensemble company can deliver. The farcical needs to be rendered with absolute precision of timing if it is not to fall flat. Here the bunch of grotesques painted like clowns which appeared before us in the shape of the grasping Donati family was a vision indeed worthy of Dante’s Hell . Set not in the Middle Ages but in early 20c. Italy, it seemed rather dreadfully pertinent given recent events in that country. Timothy Dawkins as Simone the ex mayor, wandering around with his flies half undone, set the tone. Clarissa Meeks as Zita, this time like some ancient female vulture, dominated the stage. In the middle of these horrors were the young lovers, not made up and blessedly human.

Then there was Schicchi himself, the self made man who also stood out amongst such ghastliness. Andrew Slater, without make up, with firm solid voice played him with almost aristocratic disdain for the grasping crowd around him, that is until he saw the opportunity of making a shekel or two at the expense of the dreadful family. There was almost a grimness about how he set out to dupe them. However, the finesse with which this production shoe horned Lauretta’s famous plea to Daddy into the opera’s world underlined something that had not registered with me quite so clearly before, that the daughter has inherited something of Daddy’s ability to manipulate. As sung by Galina Averina ,it was both heart rending and yet beautifully pertinent to Puccini’s ironic vision. Perhaps this depiction of the central figure lost a bit of the glee with which he puts the family to flight. There seemed more a sense of disgust than triumph in the way he kicked them out of what was now his house but the approach was in its own way hugely satisfying and one finished as one listened to the epilogue wondering more than is some other productions what Schicchi indeed had done to deserve his eternal dismissal at the hands of the poet. It was a perfect ending to a splendid two days of opera at Curve. Please do come again, in 2019!